Not Enough to Pay the Bills

Editors’ note: Spanish journalist Alicia Medina came face-to-face with the difficult reality many church-run organizations are navigating as they try to care for Lebanon’s most vulnerable amid economic collapse. Her excellent article explains the factors that led Lebanon to this point with journalistic precision. However, her tender audio report here, with sounds from her site visits and her personal impressions, including of her first visit to a psychiatric hospital, adds another dimension to her story about the church’s commitment to protecting the dignity of the human person. Listen to Alicia’s original audio clip below (in Spanish), then read “Sinking Deeper” in the March 2023 issue of ONE. A full transcript of the English translation of the audio report follows.

This is Antonia practicing her chords on the guitar. I have come to her school to learn how church groups are navigating the mammoth economic storm due to the collapse of Lebanon.

And this is Sister Gladys Sassine, the director of Blessed Sacrament School, who tells me that music helps these children to relax and cope with the negative. 

This school is a safe space, especially for the boarding students, like Antonia, who come from unstable homes. However, the school is on the brink of bankruptcy, because in Lebanon there are not enough resources to pay the bills. 

The crisis that has plagued the country since 2019 is complex, but also simple: The corruption and inefficiency of the political class have bankrupted the country. Before the crisis, a salary of 3 million Lebanese pounds was the equivalent of $2,000; today it is the equivalent of only $37.

Within a semi-failed state that is unable to pay its bills, religious and nongovernmental organizations are key in securing the survival of schools, hospitals and seniors centers. 

One wintery Saturday morning, I visit the seniors center at Al Saydeh Hospital in Antelias. Mother Arze Gemayel, the center’s director, tells me about her struggle to keep the center open despite the ministry of health defaulting on its transfer payments or the center’s gigantic bill for the electric generator. In the garden, several senior citizens have coffee with their families, who have come to visit.

Afterward, I go to the Franciscan Sisters Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, a 10-minute walk away, which welcomes 800 patients with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, delirium and psychosis. In the parking lot, I am shocked that there is only one car belonging to a visiting relative. The director of the hospital, Sister Jeannette Abou Abdallah, explains to me that due to social stigma, many families, when they drop off their children, leave the wrong phone number and abandon them to the hospital’s care.

It is the first time I enter a psychiatric hospital. It is difficult to describe. There are children of 7, and men of 70. Many spend their lives within these walls. The facilities are basic, and the work of the staff, already difficult, has been further complicated by the crisis: Positions have been eliminated and many professionals have emigrated from Lebanon.

I also visited the center for people with intellectual disabilities in Bikfaya, run by Message de Paix. Here, they learn a trade and how to fend for themselves. Some work in the kitchen, others in the candle-making workshop, while others relax in a music therapy session. The director, Manal Nehme, tells me that her biggest concern is whether they will hold out until the crisis subsides. It’s a difficult question to answer.

But every day, Mother Arze, Sister Jeanette, Manale, as well as Sister Gladys, strive to open the doors to their schools, hospitals or seniors centers and to provide the most vulnerable people with a dignified and safe space.

Alicia Medina is a Spanish freelance journalist based in Lebanon since 2018. Her work has appeared in international media outlets like News Deeply, Syria Direct, Syria Untold, DW or Radio France International.

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